As one who rails against the constant mischaracterisation of council housing and council tenants in the media (and by some housing professionals), watching a serious but entertaining history of council housing was a joy.
Michael Collins’ ‘The Great Estate: The Rise and Fall of the Council House’ not only traced the history of council housing from the building of the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch in 1893 to the demolition of the Heygate Estate in 2011 but did so through a riveting mix of analysis, archive footage and personal histories. It’s a highly recommended watch for anyone with an interest in housing, available on i-player.
I thought Collins made some excellent points in a thread running throughout the programme about the importance of creating neighbourhoods and not just estates of homes, what he called the sense of belonging, and his description of Aneurin Bevan’s concept of a classless new society based on council housing. His criticism of the government’s move towards temporary tenancies was all the more powerful in this context – it will destroy, as he said, the sense of permanence that gives people a reason to make an investment in their homes and estates.
Jimmy McGovern made the point forcefully – despite being a tenant, ‘it was our house not the councils, that’s why we looked after it…… Just because it’s a council house doesn’t mean it’s not yours.’ Tell that to the government and the modern providers who see tenants as transitory occupiers of their (the landlords’) homes.
I also agree with Collins that utopian architecture, government subsidies for high rise, and jerry building caused huge problems, helped spoil the reputation of council estates as places to live and failed the ‘sense of belonging’ test. I would also add bad housing management to the list.
Where I depart from Collins is in his analysis of the impact of the 1977 homelessness legislation. It is not accurate to say it ‘jettisoned policies that favoured locals’ or that it led to the rehousing of ‘itinerant’ people. The vast majority of people rehoused were on local waiting lists and qualified under local connection rules, and having worked as a senior manager in one of the boroughs with the greatest numbers of homeless people, I think his claims that the system was abused are wildly exaggerated.
Of course there were changes on the demand side – as home ownership became an option for many, and as private renting contracted – but for council housing these were less important than what happened to supply. Collins says rightly that Thatcher passed the ‘death sentence’ on council housing, but he does it only in passing. It was the collapse in supply, starting after the 1976 IMF crisis but hugely intensified under Thatcher, that changed the nature of council housing and ended Bevan’s dream. The sector was made to become, as some Tories acknowledged then and some still do today, a residual tenure moving rapidly towards the American model, and with the same consequences.
Nor is it all bad today, or even normally bad. There are millions of people happily living in council homes at affordable rents, with the security of tenure that helps give them that crucial sense of belonging. And there are millions more who would be only too delighted to receive an offer to join them.
See another blogger’s view of the programme – Jules Birch of Inside Housing – here.